As Syria’s war grinds along in its seventh year of fighting, the conflict is entering an ominous new phase as President Bashar Assad’s forces step up their offensive operations and the broader proxy war intensifies between several nation states, including Iran and Israel. Assad’s forces have secured the upper hand on the battlefield and are concentrating their efforts in clearing out remaining areas of opposition influence around Damascus. In the coming weeks, look for Assad to focus on eliminating remaining pockets of opposition control around Rastan in the north and in southwestern Syria near the Jordanian border.
At that point, Assad will face an important choice. Does he try to regain control of Idlib province in northwestern Syria, where thousands of civilians and militants fleeing other conflict zones have moved, and where radical groups such as Fatah Sham, which is Al Qaeda in Syria, control large parts of the province? Or does he instead turn east to contest U.S. backed-Kurdish forces and try to regain large portions of the country’s critical oil infrastructure? The latest estimate is that Kurdish forces control territory, including oil and gas fields in eastern Syria, that accounts for about 30 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. These resources will be critical to the regime’s long-term reconstruction project.
There are indications that regime forces are already conducting intermittent attacks in Idlib, so that is the most likely near-term target. According to the latest United Nations estimate, there are approximately 2.5 million Syrians in Idlib, including more than one million children. Given the difficult terrain in parts of Idlib, the presence of many of the most extreme Al Qaeda and Islamic State opposition fighters left in Syria, and the simple fact that these fighters have few places left in Syria to go, the fight for Idlib is likely to be especially vicious and bloody. Given the regime’s track record of using chemical weapons in Idlib, we should brace ourselves for additional use of chemical munitions if local regime commanders think they are necessary.
Meanwhile, tensions between Israel and Iran in Syria have reached a dangerous new level in recent weeks. In early April, Israel reportedly fired missiles at a Syrian airbase and killed seven Iranians. There are also reports that late Sunday night Israel may have struck military bases used by Iran and its proxy militias near Hama and Aleppo, killing additional Iranians. This comes on the heels of claims by Defense Secretary James Mattis that Iran is strengthening its military footprint in Syria and using the country as a platform to transfer increasingly advanced weapons to Hezbollah.
Senior Israeli officials have repeatedly warned that Israel will not accept a large Iranian military presence on its border, and are reportedly now bracing for an Iranian response to the recent missile strikes. So, the potential for a clash between Israel and Iran in Syria has increased sharply of late. It’s worth considering that such a confrontation could escalate quickly and trigger direct attacks inside both Israel and Iran. It could also spill beyond Syria’s borders to Lebanon and Iraq, potentially drawing in Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq.
If all this is not sufficiently worrisome, Turkey’s recent military operations in northwestern Syria around Afrin, as well as Ankara’s on again, off again cooperation with Washington on the final disposition of the strategically important area around the city of Manbij, located just west of the Euphrates River, adds yet another level of complexity to the situation. If Turkey’s overarching objective is to expand its buffer zone to its entire southern border with Syria, we should anticipate additional clashes between Turkish and Kurdish forces in the coming months.
Even as the increasingly fraught military situation in Syria absorbs most of the world’s attention, the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate. The latest reliable estimates are that nearly 500,000 Syrians have died thus far in the conflict, and nearly half of Syria’s population before the war is now displaced or seeking asylum outside the country. In fact, according to the United Nations, more than 13 million of Syria’s current population of 18 million people are now dependent on humanitarian assistance. So, in my view, it’s crystal clear that the war that Assad unleashed on his own population more than seven years ago and that external actors, especially Iran and Russia, have fueled, seems poised to enter an ominous next stage. Is there anything that U.S. policymakers might do now to prepare for the next chapter in this conflict?
First, U.S. policymakers might want to delay the timeline for drawing down U.S. forces in Syria. The fight against ISIS in eastern Syria is not yet over, and the removal of U.S. forces could allow ISIS to reconstitute in the no man’s land along the border between Iraq and Syria, potentially jeopardizing the security of Iraq and eventually Jordan. The presence of a limited number of U.S. troops also increases America’s ability to target Al Qaeda elements in western Syria, and does provide, in my view, diplomatic leverage over both the Assad regime and Moscow, which will be critical during future negotiations to end the conflict. In addition, a sudden removal of U.S. forces could put at risk the Syrian Democratic Forces backed by the United States, who were instrumental in the recapture of Raqqa, and who in the absence of U.S. military support will likely become a target for the Assad regime and its allies.
Second, given the recent spike in tensions between Israel and Iran, U.S. policymakers may want to think carefully about ways, including direct messaging to both countries, to limit the potential for that confrontation to spread beyond Syria’s borders, and about U.S. options if that should unfortunately occur. Finally, U.S. policymakers might want to reconsider all of America’s options for tackling the deepening humanitarian nightmare in Syria, from providing increased relief assistance to rethinking the handling of Syria’s displaced population. The situation on the ground will not improve for the foreseeable future, and it is not an exaggeration to say that an entire generation of Syria’s children are at risk.
Despite periodic claims to the contrary, there has never been, nor likely will ever be, an easy policy solution to the Syria crisis. But make no mistake, the conflict is getting worse on many levels and could spark an even broader regional crisis soon. It is incumbent on leaders across the globe to avoid the temptation to look away, and to instead redouble their efforts to identify creative diplomatic options to reduce tensions, minimize civilian casualties, prevent the further use of chemical weapons, and mitigate as much as possible the humanitarian fallout from an international crisis with no end in sight.
Michael P. Dempsey is the national intelligence fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a fellowship sponsored by the U.S. government. He is the former acting director of national intelligence. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely the views of the author.